Belarus Watch Briefing. Issue #19

January 31, 2022
Read a new issue of a bi-weekly newsletter with monitoring of Russian activities and influence in Belarus to know more.
article-photo

RECENT POLICY DEVELOPMENTS

High-ranking Russian official Boris Gryzlov to become new Russian Ambassador in Belarus

The former Russian Interior Minister (2001-2003), currently one of the leaders of United Russia - the largest Russian political party - and close ally of Vladimir Putin, will head the Russian Embassy in Belarus.

Before his departure to Minsk,Gryzov said that the "the most important condition for the calm confidence of the Belarusians in the future is the multifaceted support from Russia and the integration in the frame of the Union State". 

President Putin appointed Boris Gryzlov as the new Russian Ambassador to Belarus on January 14. It is expected that Gryzlov will arrive in Belarus by the end of January. In this way, Boris Gryzlov will be the fourth Russian Ambassador to work in Minsk since 2018. The appointment of this Russian political heavyweight to Belarus may have serious political consequences for this country. For decades, Lukashenka preferred to deal with "politically weak" Russian Ambassadors, who performed mostly symbolic and representative functions in Minsk. The arrival of Gryzlov changes this situation. Lukashenka may be forced to discuss with Gryzlov particular aspects of the Belarusian-Russian relations — whereas before, he would always discuss bilateral issues directly with Putin.

US official comments on recent development of Belarus-Russia relationship

Would the new Russian Ambassador in Minsk weaken the power of Lukashenka? What levers of control does the head of the Belarusian regime still hold? These questions of where Lukashenka's authority ends and where the Kremlin's begins was discussed at the Briefing with the US Senior State Department Official on Belarus, January, 18.

"I do believe that Lukashenka is largely in control of the levers of his government" — the US Senior State Department Official said. 

The referendum on Constitutional amendments that may result in the loss of neutrality of Belarus and allow Lukashenka to stay in office till 2035 will take place on February 27, 2022.

Commenting on this, the US official said that these two issues — military exercises in the south of Belarus and the proposed Constitution changes are directly related. In his/her view, the language of changes could be interpreted as a green light for Russia to deploy forces in Belarus. That will be a "challenge to European security that may require a response."

"Over time, Lukashenka has relied more and more on Russia for all kinds of support, and we know that Putin doesn't give that support for free", the US Senior State Department Official said. "It's clear Russia is preying on Lukashenka's vulnerability and calling in some of those accumulated IOUs.  There is no escaping that having dedicated his 27 years in office to claiming to be the guarantor of Belarus's sovereignty and independence, Lukashenka has increasingly shown that he will trade it all in order to stay in power".

A major concern in relation to the Russia-Belarus relationship is that the constitutional changes will allow Russian nuclear forces to be stationed within Belarusian territory.

Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative on Western countries concerns regarding Belarus

Maria Zakharova, Spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, named Belarus a key ally and strategic partner for Russia. On the official briefing on January 20, 2022 she accused Western countries of spreading propaganda against Russia and Belarus. She also commented on the opinion that Belarus is becoming a source of instability in the region: "this is either a misunderstanding of facts or an inability to make an analytical conclusion based on these facts. Our American partners completely ignore the Belarusian situation, agenda, what happens around this country and on its borders", the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokeswoman said.

Moscow urged Washington not to interfere in the constitutional process in Belarus

The United States should respect the constitutional rights of the citizens of Belarus and refrain from any external pressure on Minsk in connection with the upcoming referendum on changes to the republic's constitution. This was announced on Wednesday, January 19, 2022 by Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Konstantin Kosachev.

"The constitutional process in Belarus is an internal affair of the country. Only the citizens of this country can determine the content of future amendments, including those affecting the security and defense capability of Belarus," Kosachev said.

The Deputy Speaker stressed that any subsequent agreements between Russia and Belarus based on the constitutions of the two countries "will be the subject of their exclusive competence, regardless of the comments of third countries."

"In terms of the deployment of "nuclear garrisons" on the territory of other states, it's up to someone else, but not the United States, to comment on this topic, given how many American nuclear weapons are deployed in Europe," he said.

ENERGY AND ECONOMY

Finance

In 2022, Belarus needs about $3.7 billion to pay and service its public debt: BYN 6.936 billion ($2.45 billion) to pay off the state debt, and BYN 3.522 billion ($1.25 billion) to service debt. Government guarantees on loans issued by Belarusian banks and foreign creditors will amount to $729.4 million ($257.9 million).

(For calculations, the average annual dollar exchange rate USD / BYN 2.8279, which is included in the 2022 budget, was taken).

To whom and how much Belarus owes

According to the data for the year 2020 published by the World Bank, the state debt of Belarus in 2020 increased by 8.4% — from $17.13 billion to $18.57 billion.

China has become the third-largest creditor of Belarus. By the end of the year, Belarus owed China about $3.25 billion. This is 6.63% less than a year earlier. On second place were bondholders, the debt to whom amounted to $3.52 billion (62.9% more than in 2019). This is due to Eurobonds' placement in June 2020 for $1.25 billion.

But most of all, Belarus owes Russia $8.32 billion (almost 50% of Belarus' public debt).

The financial institution has not yet published such information for 2021. At the same time, the World Bank statistics show that the country's public debt has increased 2.8 times over ten years - from $6.56 billion in 2010 to $18.57 billion in 2020.

Foreign trade

In 2021, the largest negative balance of commodity trade wasformed with Russia — $6.44 billion over 11 months. Compared to the same period in 2020, the balance for Belarus worsened by $3.7 billion. The reason is the enormous growth in imported goods from Russia. According to Belstat, Russian imports jumped by 45.8% over 11 months, while Belarusian exports increased only by 24.7%. The Russian Federation also acts as a creditor to the Republic of Belarus — directly and through the Eurasian Fund for Stabilization and Development. The share of Russia in commodity trading is large. For 11 months of 2021, it amounted to 49.1%, which is more than the total share of all other countries from the list of the top 100 partners of the Republic of Belarus (48.1%).

Energy

PJSC Transneft, the Russian operator of trunk oil pipelines,plans to supply 9 million tons of oil to Belarusian refineries (Mozyr refinery, Gomel region, and OJSC Naftan, Novopolotsk, Vitebsk region) in 2022. The volume of oil transportation through the Transneft system in 2022 will depend on the dynamics of the recovery in the global oil market, the pace of easing and lifting the remaining restrictions on oil production in Russia and the restoration of oil production by Russian companies. The plan for deliveries to non-CIS countries for 2022 is 194.5 million tons. The plan provides for the supply of 10 million tons of oil to neighboring countries, including 9 million tons to the refineries of the Republic of Belarus and 1 million tons to the refineries of Kazakhstan. Belarusian refineries received 10.7 million tons of oil through the Transneft system in 2021.

INTERNET AND MEDIA

Program for hacking smartphones and computers

On January 17, 2022 the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus placedon the public procurement sitea request for a program that allows to hack smartphones and computers.

The program specified in the request is the Mobile Forensic Expert Plus software. Its developer is the Russian company Oxygen Software.

The total estimated cost of the program's purchase is 135,552 Belarusian rubles (around 46,000 euro) for two software units. The source of funding is budgetary funds. The committee plans to purchase the software from a single source, meaning there will be only one supplier.

The published request for the program is accompanied with the detailed terms of reference, which lists numerous functions and technologies for hacking which public investigators require including for guessing passwords, bypassing the encryption of Android devices, working with iOS, and instant messengers.

Earlier, a representative of the Investigative Committee stated that such complexes are needed "to collect evidence about the defendants in criminal cases," and "gadgets confiscated in accordance with the law from suspects and defendants in criminal cases must be examined, including their contents."

Protest Russia — All-Russian Opposition Chat

The Belarusian authorities have recognised the Russian Telegram chat "Protest Russia — All-Russian Opposition Chat" as extremist. From now on, the subscribers of this chat may face criminal persecution on the territory of Belarus. This situation is another example of coordination between the Belarusian and Russian security services in their fight against the political opposition in both countries. In recent months, dozens of the Belarusian Telegram channels and alternative media have been lebelled extremist.

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION

Belarusian-Russian cooperation on the "study of genocide"

The Belarusian Prosecution Service and the Russian foundation "Historical Remembrance"signed a cooperation agreement on the study of the genocide of the Soviet population during WWII. It is another step in the Belarusian-Russian cooperation in the "fight against falsification of WWII history". Historical Remembrance is heavily focused on the promotion of the Kremlin's policy of historical revisionism and narratives. For example, it repeatedly attacks theBaltic countries, accusing them of sympathising with the Nazis. The Belarusian authorities started to investigate the issue of the "genocide of the Belarusians" during WWII in 2021. Lukashenka has repeatedly used this issue in order to accuse Poland and Lithuania of historicalcrimes against Belarus.

MILITARY AND LAW-ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES

Quick return of a Belarusian Army unit from Kazakhstan

A Belarusian Army unit taking part in the CSTO mission in Kazakhstan returned to Belarus on January 14, 2022. Having arrived in Kazakhstan on January 6, 2022, the CSTO soldiers spent a total of nine days in the country. This situation may have established a precedent for future foreign missions of the Belarusian Army within the CSTO "peace-making" missions.

Beginning of the Belarusian-Russian military exercises "Union Resolve 2022"

The Belarusian authorities formally announced the upcoming "Union Resolve 2022" military drill on January 18, 2022. Interestingly, the Russian troops taking part in these exercises began entering Belarusian territory even before the announcement of the drill. According to Russian statements, the number of troops taking part in these exercises will not exceed the Vienna limitations for military drills. The first stage of the drill will be completed by February 9, while the main part of the exercises will take place February 10-20, 2022.

The arrival of Russian troops in Belarus

Since January 17, 2022 Belarusian social media has published various evidence of extensive Russianmilitary forces arriving in Belarus. Russian trains moving heavy military equipment are detected every day across the country. So far, about 30 Army trains have entered Belarus — their total number maybe around 100.

Despite the fact that the upcoming Belarusian-Russian military exercises are supposed to take place on the training grounds situated in Western Belarus, the Russian troops are being concentrated primarily in the south-eastern part of Belarus, close to Ukrainian border. In this way, the Russian Army may form two striking groupings, which threaten to surround the Ukrainian capital from the two directions. The Russian units deployed near Gomel and Rechytsa pose a threat to the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, while the troops stationed near Yelsk and Mazyr may block Kyiv from the West.

Deployment of the Russian S-400 and SU-35S in Belarus

Two divisions of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft complexes and about 12 SU-35S fighters arrived in Belarus for participation in the "Union Resolve 2022" drill. According to Belarusian and Russian statements, this drill will take place on the training grounds situated in the Brest and Grodno regions. The deployment of the Russian S-400 complexes and other high-precision weapons in the Brest region directly threaten the functioning of the Ukrainian Army bases and airfields situated in Western and Central Ukraine.

Belarus Watch Team

Related articles

PODCAST
February 20, 2019

Ep. 8 - Political culture in Ukraine and Russia

Host Volodymyr Yermolenko (UkraineWorld, InternewsUkraine) welcomes to the studio Andreas Umland (senior expert at Institute of Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, lecturer...
PODCAST
June 15, 2020

Ep. 28 – Donbas War: Can Minsk Agreements End It?

Host Volodymyr Yermolenko welcomes Duncan Allan, Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House in London to talk about the prospects of the...